Red eggs. That’s what they do for Easter, the Orthodox. Red. Just red.
This news was so bewildering to me—long before I joined the Orthodox Church—that I couldn’t process it at all. For years, actually. After all, how can you even have Easter with only red Easter eggs?
But now the traditions of Orthodoxy are my adopted traditions, and I’ve had to come to terms with it, this red egg conundrum.
When I was a girl, Easter eggs bore almost no resemblance to eggs at all—I mean those we made for the egg-decorating Contest—so far were they from plain red. Very few Contest eggs were dyed in the regular way. But because our judge was something of an old traditionalist, and because among thirty entries which bore as much resemblance to, say, fire trucks, or dachshunds, as they did to eggs, you could always enter a bowl of sweetly, perfectly colored, solid pastel eggs and be a shoo-in for the Pandering Award. Beyond our Contest entries, we did dye eggs the normal way too, with a Paas kit, crayons, rubber bands, hot wax: these, however, made by the hundreds, were merely for the egg hunt. No prize money rode on the beauty or cleverness of their sloping shoulders.
But for the Contest. The Contest, now, these eggs were something else. We worked on them the whole week prior to Easter (now known to me as “Holy Week”) under great secrecy. No one discussed plans or designs; no eyebrows were raised about props spied in advance, no matter how odd. Skateboards, balsa wood, a fish tank—don’t ask. We kept to ourselves with a lack of knowledge of others’ efforts that amazes me now given the limitations of our work space. For we were two families, mine and my cousins (plus many assorted friends and bystanders) up at our two small cabins in the woods. We had been thinking about these eggs for some months. Sunday morning—Easter I mean—would find us gathering at the cousins’ cabin to set up our creations, revealing them publicly for the first time. While we worked at this inside the shuttered cabin, the parents were outside, hiding the rest of the eggs all over the surrounding woods, some rather outlandishly, for the cutthroat hunt which would in a few moments kick off our annual day-long devotion to eggs.
For our contest creations, my close cousin, Katie, and I favored the form of the egg, and in many years we dressed eggs like people in handmade fabric clothes: an eyelet-clad bride, a Huck Finn in overalls and a hat on a homemade twig raft. Once we covered an egg in the peeled-apart spikes of a pine cone, and the result looked uncannily like a pine cone. This egg won no prize.
Other egg creations were more architectural, sculptural. The three-tiered heaven, earth, and hell egg mobile, suspended from the ceiling, complete with deviled eggs populating the lowest tier. A balsa wood, pipe cleaner, and blown-egg sculpture of an oil derrick. A fish tank filled with brightly colored tropical egg fish.
Among the creations pictured above in this old photo are Huckleberry Egg in the foreground, to his left, a birdcage with escaped birds, a stripper with a feather fan, a black widow, a giant olive in a martini glass (talk about pandering! our judge loved martinis!), a totem pole (those had to be blown eggs), a balloon man with more blown-egg balloons, a basket of radishes, what appears to be a caveman and some sort of pet, and a clown couple (so conventional!).
It is correct to assume that in this contest, actual young children were so severely disadvantaged that they opted out altogether. It was enough to watch.
The prizes—a pretty extensive list of awards—were all cash, and not just token amounts. Winners in any category could walk away with twenty bucks. Looking back I can’t quite imagine the extravagance—cheerful? foolish?—of the grown-ups, as they doled out prizes for the decorating contest, the hunt (first dozen found, most eggs found, and that great, unattainable brass ring, the Golden Egg, an empty L’eggs egg stuck somewhere unexpected like in a branch of a Ponderosa pine, the ubiquitous western pine which stands like a telephone pole, branchless for eight or ten feet), and the egg cracking contest.
I didn’t know it, but all those years we cracked eggs we were practicing what could be considered the one whimsical element to an Orthodox Easter. After the traditional Greek Orthodox feast of lamb, a fast-breaking, joyous affair, the solid red eggs are doled out, and everyone takes turns whacking the points and rounded ends of the eggs together. Whoever remains intact at the end of all the cracking on both ends is declared triumphant.
Way back when, we weren’t really thinking about the egg as a symbol of life, nor about the cracking being like Jesus busting out of the tomb, nor of red as a symbol of his blood; nor did we say as we whacked, Christ is risen! Indeed he is risen! No. We were hoping against hope for another twenty bucks, hoping we had found, or remembered to pocket, doctored eggs with waxy tip, or that wooden egg which looked almost real, or short of that, if we might not have a winner we thought perhaps some other fun could be had with the circuitous contest, like introducing a raw egg here and there to spice things up.
Picture: Twenty egg hunters at least, very few of whom were young children, several of whom of high school or college age, going so far as to introduce friends or new significant others to our family at this festal insanity, having hunted at least one dozen eggs ranging far into the still, soft-floored pine forest, possibly even getting themselves into somewhat dangerous situations checking a chimney top for that elusive Golden Egg. Twenty egg hunters, now finished hunting, milling around cracking eggs with mighty whacks, stealthy whacks, cheating whacks, gag whacks. Milling on a wide western deck of a cabin, sun-warmed, broad stairs, sun filtering through the airy open pine forest.
Satisfied, sun-warmed, tired, nearly ready for breakfast but not quite. First, the highlight of our day’s egg veneration: the judging of The Contest. Always, always, our judge was the same man. An old friend of the family, literally from our parents’ childhoods, presumably chosen for his not being the dad of most of us, of only one of us—greater objectivity?—but probably chosen for his great showmanship, timing, humor, general fairness, and easy panderability. (Most of us, though we knew the way to this judge’s heart, eschewed that broad path, preferring an honest effort at creating something more like a fire truck or a dachshund than an egg.)
Tom—for this was our judge’s name—with great style and flamboyance awarded many of our creations with prizes created especially for particular entries, on the spur of the moment. Rarely did a contestant walk away with no prize, but two awards were coveted more greatly than all the others.
The Grand Prize, obviously awarded to that egg than which no greater egg achievement was possible. Snagging this would be the talk of a year: like a World Series trophy, or a blue ribbon for a pumpkin at the state fair. Prestigious, elusive.
The other award had a degree of ignominy, to be sure, but it also had a certain cachet, an ironic pleasure. This was the storied Uncle Wayne Award.
Named for the storied Uncle Wayne, it turned out this award was multivalent, something which I only learned well into my adult years. Most of my life I understood this award to be bestowed upon that person who clearly turned in a heroic effort, and clearly failed. Who swung for the fence and struck out. Whose art mimicked the life of that never-present, much loved, and rather pitied brother. That one who was brilliant but drank so much that it washed all the brilliance away, and who now in his mid-life seemed to be best at getting into absurd scrapes and needing to be extracted from preposterous dilemmas. My father and his sister did their best by their brother; his actual difficulties were not much discussed. But this was the way in which my family embraced Uncle Wayne and acknowledged, and kept at a distance, the sorry contours of his disappointing life. He was an antihero. To be named his creative, artistic, or intellectual heir in The Contest meant, anyway, that someone had noticed you were trying, you were struggling, you had a deep core of brilliance. And maybe next year you could harness all that and nail the Grand Prize.
Though this was what I thought it was about my whole life, yet there was another element to the Uncle Wayne Award, another reading entirely. It had to do with his life before the part when he drank too much. When he was young, he was brilliant and strong and kind and talented. Kind of intimidating actually. But the thing about him that people remembered was that he was always standing up for the underdog—in any form. A kid who was bullied—Uncle Wayne protected him especially. The smallest runty weakling duck that hatched in a nest—he’d pick that one for his special pet. The more lost the cause, the more Uncle Wayne gravitated toward it. His whole life he had a weakness for weakness—or rather, the embracing and strengthening thereof. With this understanding, the award was always given to that most lost of causes which Uncle Wayne himself would have embraced, were he with us. Which he never, of course, actually was.
I never knew this part about my uncle’s life, and it had never occurred to me that there might be an alternate understanding of his eponymous award. This new insight sent me into a mild mental tailspin for a few weeks as I tried to reimagine my childhood through the new lens. How could I possibly understand this scary uncle who would get in drunken screaming rages, needed to be bailed out of a Mexican jail, and referred to me as a good-looking broad when I was nine—how could I possibly understand him not just as an antihero but as, well, an actual hero? How could there be room in my mind for both? And what did it mean that I had fundamentally misunderstood the nature of this absurd family in-joke my whole life?
Things are so very rarely what they seem to be. We blithely move through our lives thinking we are doing, or understanding, one thing, when actually we are doing something completely different, and not understanding anything at all.
My Easter eggs are red now and Uncle Wayne is a little redeemed. After years and sea-changes, I still eat the same Easter breakfast. It tastes best outdoors on a western-facing porch, sunlight dappling through pine needles.
Easter Morning Brunch Menu
Hot cross buns or cinnamon rolls
Seasonal fruit: strawberries, citrus, pineapple
8 slices soft bread
2 c grated cheddar cheese
1 can diced green chiles
1 c cubed smoked ham (about 1/4-inch dice) [optional]
3 c milk
1/2 t each of dry mustard, onion powder, and salt
healthy pinch of cayenne pepper
Lightly butter bread on one side. Cut it in cubes and sprinkle it into a greased 9X13 casserole. Shake grated cheese, then dribble chiles, then fling ham if using, on top. In a bowl, beat the eggs and add milk and spices to taste (you can add different ones, above are suggested to begin with). Pour into casserole dish, covering the bread, chiles, and ham. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Bake 45 minutes at 325 degrees, uncovered.
Hot Cross Buns
We always got them from a good bakery, but here is a recipe from Allrecipes.com that is just right.
3/4 c warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
1 T (1 pkg) active dry yeast
3 T butter
1 T instant powdered milk
1/4 c white sugar
3/8 t salt
1 egg white
3 c all-purpose flour
1 T ground cinnamon
3/4 c dried currants, dried cherries, or golden raisins
1 egg yolk
2 T water
1/2 c confectioners' sugar
1/4 t vanilla extract
2 t milk
Bread machine: Put warm water, butter, milk powder, 1/4 cup sugar, salt, egg, egg white, flour, and yeast in bread maker and start on dough program.
When 5 minutes of kneading are left, add currants and cinnamon. Leave in machine till double.
No bread machine: Dissolve yeast in warm water, add butter through cinnamon and mix well. Add currants, distribute well. Knead for 10 minutes. Place in greased bowl, turn over dough to leave top greased, and cover with a cloth. Let it rise in a warm place until doubled--check after 40 minutes.
Both methods: Punch down on floured surface, cover, and let rest 10 minutes.
Shape into 12 balls and place in a greased 9 x 12 inch pan. Cover and let rise in a warm place till double, about 35-40 minutes.
Mix egg yolk and 2 tablespoons water. Brush on balls.
Bake at 375 degrees F (190 degrees C) for 20 minutes. Remove from pan immediately and cool on wire rack.
To make crosses: mix together confectioners' sugar, vanilla, and milk; icing should not be too runny. Pipe an X on each cooled bun.
Whole Wheat Cinnamon Rolls
Don't let the name fool you. This lovely recipe from my old friend Christy is neither whole-grainy-tasting nor healthy in the least. I didn't eat these growing up, but I've been making them for Easter for many years now.
1 1/3 c whole wheat pastry flour
3 T sugar
1 t salt
1 T (1 pkg) active dry yeast
1 c milk
2 T butter
1 to 1 1/4 c flour
In a large mixer bowl, combine whole wheat pastry flour, yeast, sugar, and salt. In saucepan, heat milk and butter just until milk is warm. (To get the proper temperature, I always go by the guidelines on the yeast package, and I always use a thermometer.) (This is on account of destroying many yeast breads and rolls because of killing the yeast with too hot a liquid, or failing to get it going with too cool a liquid. I make the errors so you don't have to.) Add to flour mixture. Blend at lowest speed until moistened, then beat 2 minutes at medium speed.
By hand stir in the white flour to form a stiff dough. Knead on a floured board until elastic, 2 to 3 minutes. Place in a greased bowl, turn over to leave top greased. Cover and rise in a warm place until doubled--about 45 minutes.
While it is rising, prepare your pan. In a 9" round pan, put:
1/4 c melted butter
2/3 c packed brown sugar
1/2 c chopped nuts
a good shake of cinnamon
Punch down dough when raise is finished. Roll it out into a 12" X 16" rectangle. Using a brush, spread with melted butter, sprinkle with brown sugar, cinnamon, and nuts. Just do a nice healthy amount. The dough should be covered but not gobbed with sugar and cinnamon. I suppose if you wanted to add some raisins, now would be the time.
Roll the dough into a fairly snug cylinder starting on the 16" side. Slice it into 1" slices. Now place these into your prepared pan, cover, and let rise again until doubled, about 45 minutes.
With 10 or 15 minutes to go, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Invert onto a plate immediately, and gobble up joyfully.
(If you want them early in the morning, start the night before and when you have your slices in the pan, cover and place in the fridge. The second rise will happen very slowly in the fridge and the pan will be ready to bake in the morning.)
Photo of little girls (me and my cousin Katie) on the cabin deck is provided by Katie Pernu. Photos of contest eggs, and my cousins at the cabin, taken when everyone was still mostly small and non-competitive, were provided by Ann Wheat.
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